- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

JERUSALEM — Israel will target and kill Palestinian militants in retaliation for a suicide bombing that killed four Israelis, senior security sources said yesterday. Leaders of Hamas, however, will be exempt from such strikes because the group has halted its attacks, the sources said.

Thursday’s suicide bombing occurred minutes after an Israeli air strike in Gaza killed three Islamic Jihad militants and two civilians. The violence disrupted a relatively calm period and threatened tentative steps to renew peace talks.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and his top commanders decided yesterday to target militants from Islamic Jihad and the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — the group that claimed responsibility for Thursday’s bombing, said security sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Since the start of fighting in September 2000, Israel has routinely hunted down and killed militant leaders — often in a manner similar to Thursday’s helicopter air strike, which killed the top Islamic Jihad leader in the Gaza Strip. Yesterday’s decision signaled Israel could step up such attacks.

Israel’s military chief, Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, said in an interview published yesterday that Hamas — which has been responsible for most suicide bombings and been the prime target of Israeli strikes — had halted attacks inside Israel in response to Israeli attacks on its leaders.

“It is no coincidence that a group like Hamas decides to stop attacks within Israel, it comes from the realization that their organization is in danger,” Gen. Yaalon told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

Due to Hamas’ decision, Israel will not strike the group, the security sources said.

Also yesterday, Israeli soldiers shot at a crowd of about 200 Israelis, Palestinians and foreigners demonstrating against a security barrier Israel is building to separate the West Bank and Israel. Two protesters were wounded in the shooting.

Rescue workers said an Israeli protester was moderately wounded by gunfire, and an American was lightly wounded by a rubber-coated bullet.

In Gaza, tens of thousands of Palestinians attended the funerals of the five persons killed in Thursday’s air strike.

“Our message to [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon … prepare coffins for your people because our earthshaking reprisals are on the way,” an armed militant shouted to mourners at the funeral of Mekled Hameid, 39, a top Islamic Jihad commander in the Gaza Strip.

In the Tel Aviv suburb of Kfar Saba, friends and family of Cpl. Angelina Shcherov read the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, under palm trees as they laid her to rest. The other Israeli victims were also buried yesterday.

The bombing took place during the busy evening rush hour at a bus stop at the Geha junction outside Tel Aviv. The bomber approached the bus stop and blew himself up, killing three soldiers and a 17-year-old Israeli girl and wounding at least 13 others.

It was the first such attack on civilians since an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber blew herself up on Oct. 4 at a restaurant in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, killing 21.

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